I have been working in the field of corporate health promotion for over five years. During that time I have read studies and listened to expert speakers explain how companies have saved, or may save, on health care costs by implementing a wellness program. I honestly believe, over time, a well executed and comprehensive wellness program can achieve such results. I have also come to believe there are other, perhaps more compelling, reasons to have a wellness program. The rest of world seems to agree. A 2014 survey[i] of over 1,000 companies from around the world, shared why their organizations participate in corporate wellness.
The United States was the LONE country whose number one reason for doing wellness was to save money on healthcare costs. The only other country that listed it as a top five reason was Canada (coming in at number four). For all other countries in the survey it was number 7 or lower on the list of reasons. Most other countries, such as, Australia, Europe, Latin America and Asia were engaged in wellness programs to improve workforce morale/engagement, reduce absences or improve safety.
To be fair, the U.S. is unique in that we have employer funded model for health care. It would stand to reason the U.S. companies would be more interested in reducing health care costs. What I think is interesting is without that compelling reason other countries find it beneficial to provide wellness programs.
Let’s take a more detailed look at how wellness impacts areas besides health care costs.
U.S. wellness programs focus on reducing medical costs. But medical and pharmaceutical costs only represent 40% of the total cost of poor health. The other 60% is lost productivity and wage replacement (we will talk more about that is a minute). Lets take a moment to look at lost productivity, which goes hand-in-hand with engagement.
Unhealthy employees are less willing/able to work, affecting a company’s bottom line. Unhealthy employees are also less likely to stay at an organization they feel doesn’t care about their well-being. Both cost organizations money as they spend more on hiring and training.
Worksite wellness initiatives provide an opportunity for a group of employees to work towards the same goal. This is why wellness programs within companies have a higher rate of success than individual programs. Employees support each other and motivate each other, which can translate to a similar collaboration on all work projects. Healthy workers are also more likely to be able to focus on work.
Instituting wellness programs increases attendance by decreasing some of the reasons for absenteeism. Stress, depression or anxiety and musculoskeletal disorders accounted for the majority of days lost due to work-related ill health in the UK, 11.3 and 8.3 million days respectively.[ii] The Wellness Council of America estimates that 100 million workdays are lost to workers’ lower back problems each year. A company fitness program that includes weight loss and muscle strengthening can reduce instances of lower back injuries. A flu education program encourages employees to get flu shots, trains employees to treat their flu symptoms properly, allowing employees to return to work more quickly and reducing instances of sick employees infecting healthy ones. The DuPont Corporation reduced disability days among its workforce by 14 days each year after instituting a wellness and fitness program. Pacific Bell Telephone Company decreased costs related to absenteeism by approximately $2 million annually and disability leave expenses by approximately $4.7 million by instituting a wellness program.
Healthy workers are less prone to injury and, once injured, recover more quickly than their out-of-shape co-workers. Conversely, obesity is one of the major contributors to back injuries because overweight people often have difficulty using good body mechanics when moving and lifting objects. There are also numerous links between workplace stress and work-related illness because stress contributes to high blood pressure, which can result in poor decision-making and increased errors. Inadequate sleep and fatigue also directly reduce concentration and the ability to work safety, even for employees in non-physical jobs.[iii] This is just the tip of the iceberg as to other reasons to implement a wellness program. As you can see there are many benefits besides reducing healthcare costs.
The bottom line? A growing body of evidence supports the concept that focusing on the health and safety of a workforce is good business. Engaging in a comprehensive effort to promote wellness can produce remarkable impacts on health care costs, productivity, and performance.[iv]
Perhaps one survey respondent summed up my number one reason for advocating for wellness programs. “Testimonials have indicated lives have been saved and changed. Who could ask for more?” Indeed, if you truly care about your employees, what could be more important?
[i] Buck Consultants (July 2014, Sixth Edition). Working Well: A Global: Survey of Health Promotion; Workplace Wellness and Productivity Strategies. Retrieved April 15, 2015, from https://www.bucksurveys.com/bucksurveys/Surveys/GlobalWellness/tabid/72/Default.aspx
[ii] http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/dayslost.htm[iii] Occupational Health and Safety. Safety and Wellness: The Critical Connection. Retrieved May 12, 2015, from http://ohsonline.com/articles/2013/09/01/safety-and-wellness-the-critical-connection.aspx
[iv] Fabius, R, Thayer, D. Konicki, D. Yarborough, C.M.,Peterson, K.W, Isaac, F., Loeppke, R.R., Eisenberg, B.S., Dreger, M. (2013). The Link Between Workforce Health and Safety and the Health of the Bottom Line. American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Volume 55, Number 9.